September 4, 2014

After the war

By Martin Krygier
After the war
Remembering Richard Krygier, the Cold War and 'Quadrant'

The Cold War was a foreign import. Its origins and central battlegrounds were elsewhere. It was only here because it was everywhere. Yet I have long had the sense that for many Australians it occupied a space framed on the one hand by local imaginaries and on the other by free-floating fantasies.

Some people brought different experiences and imagination to thinking about the Cold War. They were not always thanked for it. One was Richard Krygier, my father. He was, for his whole life in Australia, an anti-communist activist. He’s best known for Quadrant magazine, which he founded in 1956 and published until he died in 1986.

My parents were both born in Warsaw, Richard a month before the Russian Revolution and my mother, Roma, six months later. It’s no exaggeration to say communism was a malevolent accompaniment to their lives. She saw the Cold War out, living until 1999; he did not, though he sensed by the time he died that the ground was shifting.

They were both politically active, even at school and then at university. She was a member of an illegal communist youth organisation. He was never a communist, but warmly disposed to communist friends, admiring of Polish communists and of what he took to be the achievements of the Soviet Union.

They married in January 1939. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September, unenlisted men were ordered to make their way east in the hope of joining a regrouped Polish army there. My father was advised to go north to Lithuania rather than south to Romania, because Ukrainians were murdering Poles travelling that way. He took a train and, with some money won playing cards, bought a Polish officer’s winter cap. That cap could have killed him. Polish officers were being taken off the train and shot in the thousands. But as a leftist he had insisted on having an ID that listed him as a clerk, not a student. That saved him.

He arrived in Vilnius, from where he managed to send word to my mother to join him. The Soviet authorities confiscated their travel papers, and they were trapped in Lithuania under increasingly oppressive Soviet occupation. With several thousand others they were saved by the Japanese consul there. Off his own bat he issued transit visas through Japan. Had that not occurred, my parents would doubtless have perished when the Nazis ended their alliance by attacking the Soviet Union six months later and immediately began murdering almost all the Jews in Lithuania.

They arrived in Australia, via Russia, Japan, Shanghai and Indonesia, on two-week transit papers at the end of November 1941. Their plan was to get to Canada, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor meant my parents were stuck here. They came to be extremely grateful for their luck.

By the time he arrived in Australia, my father had come to the conclusion that there was much in common between the two regimes that had destroyed so much that he valued. As he later put it: ‘I was anti-Nazi before the War; I’m anti-Communist now. I haven’t changed.’

By then, my parents’ early sympathies for communism had suffered cumulative shocks. Some were experienced directly, ‘on their skin’, as the Polish phrase has it, in Lithuania and their escape through the Soviet Union. They also witnessed and read voraciously about many of the other horrors of Stalinism: the murder of friends, the Show Trials of the 1930s, the liquidation of almost all (some 5000) active pre-war Polish communists by Moscow in 1938 and 1939. My parents had known and admired many of these people. They learnt from other sources of mass starvation, denunciations, executions, tortures, camps, murder on mega-industrial scales, and the lies, the crazy, outrageous lies. In the 1940s a new Polish communist party was formed in Moscow under Soviet direction and then imposed on Poland after the war. My parents were by then in Sydney, looking on in dismay.

Yet in post-war Australia, the prestige of the Soviet Union remained high. Setting up Quadrant in 1956 was not an easy way to win friends, particularly among Australian intellectuals of that time. Quadrant’s values were commonly despised. Communists and pro-communists reviled them for obvious reasons. Others who professed no love for the Soviet Union felt a refined distaste for the blunt purposiveness of the magazine and its anti-communist stance.

My father was quickly struck by how little was known here, and how much that was known was untrue, about the one totalitarian regime that had survived the war and swallowed his nation and many others in central and eastern Europe, in each case imposing a devastatingly oppressive politico–ideological–economic ‘system’. It also had, he believed, worldwide ambitions, and a vast machinery via the Comintern and local communist parties and sympathisers, to further these ambitions. One way to do that was to seek to persuade the sympathetic and unaligned. My father sought to persuade them otherwise. A major vehicle was Quadrant.

In its heyday Quadrant was a lively, eclectic, and controversial magazine. It was driven by moral-political commitments. Central among these were support of liberal democracy, cultural and political freedoms and their institutional and cultural underpinnings.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, it managed to survive the collapse of communism, but when its original raison d’etre disappeared it had to change. It did so first under Robert Manne, then in a radically different direction Paddy McGuinness, and currently Keith Windschuttle.

My own association with the magazine ended when Manne resigned as editor in 1997; I resigned two days later. It was a difficult moment. Quadrant had been in the family since I was seven, and I was involved with it, in one way or another, since at least the 1970s. Though my father had died over a decade before, my mother was deeply distressed when I broke with it. Quadrant, she remonstrated sadly, was ‘your father’s third child’ (I have a sister). Though I don’t regret the decision to leave, I understood and regretted the pain it caused her.

I sometimes wonder what a conversation with my father would be like today (though I occasionally conduct one side of them anyway). On contemporary matters, my world is less clearly divided than his was, the storyline of his life has gone, there are other issues today, and my style of thinking also differs from his. Still, what was fundamental for him remains fundamental for me. And he remains for me exemplary as a human being, and a person of courage, energy, selflessness, moral clarity, honesty and warmth. So if an intimate history of a war, even a Cold War, suggests love and not just hostilities might be involved, then it was for me a deeply intimate engagement.

This is an edited extract from What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy?, edited by Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi and published by NewSouth, available now.

Martin Krygier

Martin Krygier is a professor of law and social theory at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Civil Passions: Selected Writings, a collection of essays. He also writes extensively on issues of political and legal theory and morality, particularly the rule of law, and central and eastern European politics and law.

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